Every internet minute, the global audience watches over 167 million clips of “life’s precious moments” from celebrities and average-joes alike on the something-for-everyone video streaming platform, TikTok.
In the company’s own words, TikTok is “THE destination for mobile videos,” where through liking, sharing or skipping, users are able to tailor the rolling feed of content to their individual interests and preferences, creating an endless stream of short-form videos that feel “personalised just for you.”
— TikTok US (@tiktok_us) June 14, 2022
What’s easy to forget though – amidst the infinite compilations of lip-syncing, pranks and pets – is that as well as a window to a world of entertaining 15-second videos, Chinese-owned TikTok possibly also serves as a one-way mirror for the world’s most powerful authoritarian government to watch from the other side.
Due to its Beijing roots, since TikTok’s release in 2016, many have accused the social media company of permitting the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) access to the platform as a means to monitor, influence and control its over 1 billion monthly users.
Allegations against TikTok have involved allowing China to track specific user locations, surveil their internet browsing outside the app, shape their worldview through censorship and propaganda, and infiltrate their private data 24/7.
How’s that for personal?
Over the years as a result, TikTok has faced an onslaught of pushback from high-ranking US officials calling for the popular video-sharing app to be banned in America, warning that the country’s reliance on it for news, sharing and communication infinitely exposes them to Chinese influence.
On Thursday last week, the FBI also followed suit, voicing concerns that in addition to feeding content cravings, filling empty moments, and satisfying short attention spans, TikTok could also pose a major threat to American national security.
As the unspoken cold war between the US and China shows more signs of warming up, TikTok is increasingly being viewed as one of the many unlikely cyber frontlines of a conflict that FBI Director, Christopher Wray, described as the “biggest long-term threat to our economic and national security.”
Director Wray expressed that the greatest long-term threat to our national security is from the Chinese government. pic.twitter.com/Q2oNDkMl5c
— FBI (@FBI) November 17, 2022
“One of the most massive surveillance programs ever”
The FBI Director’s main concerns relate to the potential of TikTok (as a company operating in the US under Chinese law) to be used by China’s government as a proxy to influence and collect sensitive information on millions of American users; essentially profiling the population, controlling their devices, and compromising Western democratic integrity entirely.
“The Chinese government could use it to control data collection on millions of users or control the recommendation algorithm, which could be used for influence operations if they so chose, or to control software on millions of devices, which gives it an opportunity to potentially technically compromise personal devices,” said the FBI Director.
TikTok uses an algorithm to track and analyse users’ preferences, curating a reel of tailored videos specific to the individual. This ability to create a catalogue of content unique to each viewer is one of the many genius features of TikTok that keeps people hooked, viewing for hours at a time, multiple times a day as they are presented with an infinite loop of dopamine-inducing clips of what some might call nonsense – yet shaped to satisfy their personal inclinations.
what if instead of “remembering” to set our clocks backward, we all simply “forgot” 😈 pic.twitter.com/ZuZ93ChkxO
— TikTok US (@tiktok_us) November 6, 2022
The algorithm is not open-source though, it is kept under black box conditions and is malleable at any moment, meaning that TikTok staff are able to adjust the code and augment the software as they choose — whenever they choose — without any form of transparency for users, advertisers or governments.
In light of this, concerns have been voiced around the possibility that China could use the app to influence users’ political or social viewpoints through selective censorship and promotion of polarised content or propaganda – especially given many US citizens use TikTok as a primary source of news.
What’s more, the possibility that China could covertly infiltrate personal devices through TikTok poses problems beyond the individual level, because if the targeted account is that of a government official, scientist or military personnel, this could provide China an opportunity to steal national intellectual property.
This is not the first integrity challenge TikTok has faced though. Donald Trump regularly spoke out about the app during his presidency, ultimately calling for it to be completely banned in the US if ByteDance refused to divest in 2020. Since then many others have also echoed his concerns.
This year alone many high-ranking officials have called on the US government to draw a harder line on the use of TikTok in America, a platform which they deem plays directly into the hands of CCP leader Xi Jin Ping.
Arkansas State Republican Representative, Tom Cotton, said on Sunday that “it’s not just the content you upload to TikTok, but all the data on your phone, other apps, all your personal information, even facial imagery, even where your eyes are looking on your phone,” labelling TikTok as “one of the most massive surveillance programs ever, especially on America’s young people.”
Related Articles: China’s Secret Police Are Illegally Operating in 25 Cities Across the World | UN Says China’s Abuses in Xinjiang May Constitute ‘Crimes Against Humanity’ | How TikTok Threatens Our Quality of Life | TikTok Fails to Moderate Evolving Extremist Content
But it’s not just the Republicans speaking out, the issue is bipartisan in nature. Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman, Mark Warner (a respected Democrat), recently proclaimed in an interview with Australian media that “this is not something you would normally hear me say, but Donald Trump was right.”
Warner elaborated by saying “if your country uses Huawei, if your kids are on TikTok … the ability for China to have undue influence is a much greater challenge and a much more immediate threat than any kind of actual, armed conflict.” (bolding added)
Florida Senator Marco Rubio and Wisconsin State Rep. Mike Gallagher have also both been vocal on their view of TikTok, labeling it a “tool of communist China.”
The pair even went as far as to pen an op-ed for the Wall Street Journal earlier this month titled: “TikTok, time’s up,” in which they introduced proposed new legislation to try and curb use of the app.
“TikTok has already censored references to politically sensitive topics, including the treatment of workers in Xinjiang, China, and the 1989 protests in Tiananmen Square,” said Rubio and Gallagher in their op-ed, “the CCP could also use TikTok to propagate videos that support party-friendly politicians or exacerbate discord in American society.”
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) November 28, 2019
Ties to Beijing
Both the FBI and other TikTok skeptics’ concerns stem from the fact that TikTok is owned by the Chinese company ByteDance. Another red flag is that one year after the app launched in 2016, China established a new National Intelligence Law compelling all Chinese citizens and companies to aid in national intelligence work by sharing their data when required. TikTok data = global user data.
In their op-ed, Rubio and Gallagher warned that “in China, no company is truly private,” and that TikTok could easily be used by Beijing to “collect sensitive national security information from U.S. government employees and develop profiles on millions of Americans to use for blackmail or espionage.”
ByteDance has repeatedly squashed such allegations from government officials, the media and general public over the years, denying that users’ data could be shared with branches of the parent and subsidiary companies in China, and regularly reassuring both users and congress that all US data was stored on US soil.
But after several reports from BuzzFeed and Forbes released earlier this year revealed leaked meeting audio and company paperwork that suggested otherwise (e.g. evidence that China-based employees had repeatedly accessed US user data and planned to monitor specific US user locations), the social media company was cornered by US Senators who demanded clarification on their loyalty to China.
Though TikTok claimed both of the tabloids’ allegations were based on “cherry-picked” evidence that was misconstrued – as well as underscoring the “distinction between data storage and data access” – the social media company did ultimately confess that its non-US employees were in fact able to access the US databases despite 100% of US data being stored in the cloud of American company, Oracle.
Forbes had also a few months earlier revealed that 300 of TikTok and ByteDance’s current employees have previously worked for CCP state media publications, 23 of which are acting ByteDance directors, as well as at least 15 other ByteDance employees continuing to work for the propaganda outlets at present.
— Marco Rubio (@marcorubio) October 21, 2022
Should TikTok be banned?
Based on the exchanges between TikTok and the American government, it certainly seems as though the social media app has the right intentions at heart; they have been unwaveringly vocal in their efforts to prioritise the safety and integrity of US users’ data.
In this vein, TikTok CEO, Shou Zi Chew recently unveiled an “extremely difficult and expensive” initiative known as “Project Texas” to rebuild trust and reinforce data security for its American users.
However, despite talking the talk, a problem still remains; the unfolding dynamic between TikTok’s parent company ByteDance and the Chinese government is abundantly unclear.
This lack of clarity gives rise to major concerns about TikTok’s possible loyalty to a government with trademark oppressive tendencies, and whether this ironclad bond might cause ByteDance and it’s video-sharing subsidiary to be – as the FBI Director put it himself – effectively “serving as a tool of the Chinese government.”
Rightly or wrongly, President Biden’s administration has chosen to press pause on the various movements to ban TikTok in the US, opting instead to engage in negotiation with the company, attempting to craft an agreement encompassing certain safeguarding non-negotiables on data security, content moderation, governance and algorithmic operation.
The hope is that the US government and TikTok will be able to carve out a new information infrastructure that satisfies national security concerns, but also allows the video app to maintain operation in America.
Whether this agreement will build a thick enough wall to keep China out of US business though, is hard to say, and history (as well as common sense) suggests it’s probably not likely.
What’s interesting, is that the top ten countries that use TikTok in 2022 include many nations that are regularly accused of spreading fake news and misinformation:
- United States
In eleventh place is Saudi Arabia, whereas European countries rank much lower down the leaderboard (United Kingdom 12th, Germany 15th, France 16th, Italy 19th, and Spain 20th).
The use of TikTok is rising fast across Europe however, and similarly to the US, concerns are now being raised around Europeans’ data being accessed by overseas employees, and possibly by proxy, their governments.
“By way of methods that are recognised under the GDPR, we allow certain employees within our corporate group located in Brazil, Canada, China, Israel, Japan, Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, South Korea, and the United States, remote access to TikTok European user data,” said Fox.
TikTok says this kind of access is for quality and integrity purposes, so that staff can check algorithmic performance and spot fake accounts, ultimately in an effort to maintain an online environment that is “consistent, enjoyable and safe.”
Meanwhile, China continues to deny using TikTok for any kind of monitoring purposes, but given the number of injustices reported recently at the hands of Xi Jin Ping’s government, this gesture is also understandably unconvincing.
What is becoming more believable daily, is that the many atrocities committed by the CCP that have only been revealed in recent years – crimes against humanity committed against Uyghurs in Xinjiang and the recent discovery of illegal Chinese police stations across the world, to name a couple of incidences – have quite possibly been going on for much longer.
Raising another important question: Who knows what other undercurrents of Chinese infiltration are going on everyday throughout the world? Gaining an accurate picture of the grasp China has on overseas societies, governments and infrastructures is like trying to catch fast-moving water.
It’s therefore not likely that banning a video-sharing platform will in reality stem the current.
Rather than simply closing the door on TikTok, and creating a false sense of security against a regime that’s seeds are sown ubiquitously, perhaps efforts should instead be focused on developing a thicker, stronger and more resilient infrastructure of soft power defence against the known and unknown threats China poses, and will surely continue to do so.
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: TikTok logo on smart phone screen. Featured Photo Credit: Solen Feyissa/Flickr